Let the Cat Die Already

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Statue of Bastet, Egyptian cat goddess via http://www.egyptpast.com

It’s halfway into the first week of NaNo, and even though I’m only half-participating this year (editing and overhauling my MS), I thought I’d do a blog post on writing. More specifically, on killing the cat.

I know, I know, everybody likes cats. LOL or Grumpy or big or small, everybody likes them. The Egyptians worshipped them, and all.

But guys, the cat must die.

Have you noticed how lately at the movies—especially the big, blockbuster type movies—that while you may enjoy it for the various jokes or shenanigans, overall the plot just leaves you kind of.. eh?

Like, you’ve seen that movie before, and you already know who’s going to come out on top of every scene before it happens?

I have to say, I have felt a lot of this. I went with my family to see Pacific Rim on opening night, and don’t get me wrong, I loved that movie. It is fun, fun, fun, especially if you’re a fan of Guillermo del Toro’s other work. (Which you should be!)

But we went to the midnight showing—or maybe 10 pm showing—and I was tired. For the first time since I was a kid, I fell asleep in the movie theater. But when I told my husband and my brother that, they laughed at me, because I fell asleep during the fight scenes.

Ridiculous, right? That’s where the action is!

Except…

I knew exactly how each of those battles was going to go as soon as they started. Sometimes I’d rouse myself mid-battle and nod and let myself close my eyes for another minute, because the fight was following the pattern I was expecting and so I didn’t really need to be paying attention. Somehow my subconscious knew that, and knew when I did need to pay attention—like looking just in time to see the Newton’s Cradle bit.

Everything new and wonderful about that movie was the jokes and the effects and the character back story that leaked out bit by bit. Which yes, I admit, still made for a fun movie. But the plot turns did not do anything like surprise me. This is the same reason why so many people were bored with Iron Man 3 and why it’s only been the recent, funny Thor commercials that have gotten you excited (that’s not just me, right?).

The culprit behind all of this is the widely-hailed book on screenwriting (that has been used to inspire lots of book-writing, too), Save the Cat, by  Blake Snyder. The book is subtitled “The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need,” and gives pointers on exactly (in the terms of screenwriting, down to the minute) plot points and downturns and… well, everything you need for a plot, needs to go.

And this is great. It really has helped a LOT of people write books. Or movies. Or whatever.

But it also means that people, whether consciously or not, are getting used to the pattern, and getting bored of it.

This is why things like The Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead are so popular right now. Because they subvert the expectations that people have—no one is safe, and no one is immune. Anyone could die. And that keeps readers on their toes.

Now, I don’t have stories where people are dying all of the time, and most stories don’t. But the principals are the same.

So the gist of this post? Okay, take advice where you want to. But don’t follow the advice to the letter if that’s not what’s going to work for your story. Yes, stories need high and low points. Yes, your character needs upswings and downswings. But sometimes something out of left field is what is really going to be remembered. Sometimes, you have to kill the cat.

Best Take-Away Thoughts from Storymakers 2013

Now that The Mr has in his wonderful tenacity fixed my laptop at least enough that it will read its battery again (this is a big win… especially considering we probably are nowhere near being able to afford a new laptop right now, what with my broken cellphone screen… ahem… yeah…) I can finally blog about some of the absolute best take-away thoughts I had from the Storymakers 2013 conference.

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J. Scott Savage (Farworld & Case File 13) and Tyler Whitesides (Janitors) gave a great class on the difference between an IDEA and a STORY. For example, you can have an idea of a fantastical world with a lot of different races with deep, significant histories and individual languages, and whatnot… but it’s not a story until you take a little creature called a Hobbit and give him a quest to throw a dangerous, sought-after ring into the far-off-across-lots-of-scary-lands fires that it was forged in.

STORY has to have five things: Characters, Goals, Obstacles, Consequences and some High Concept that sets it apart from other things.

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High Concept was something I heard a lot over the conference, and while I’ve always thought it was important, it was pointed out that High Concept is more important now than ever before, because self-publishing is impacting national publishing’s influence. In other words, if you want it pubbed by the big 6, High Concept HAS TO BE THERE.

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John Brown (Servant of a Dark God) gave some fabulous advice on keeping your reader in-tune with suggestions you might never have thought of, even though they’re magnificently simple. In other words: keep things in order. If you’re describing someone or something, work from top to bottom, close to far, whatever, just stay in one direction. Don’t hop from one direction to another. If something is happening, let the reader see that, see your character’s internalization if necessary, and react. Don’t try and start with the reaction… it just gets things mixed up in the reader’s mind. Really simple things, but key to stop your reader from having those “wait, what?” moments.

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Keynote speaker Anne Perry (Charlotte & Thomas Pitt novels) gave a just beautiful speech about the fact that we all have had magical experiences, and as writers it is our duty to write them down, to reach out to human experience and say yes, I know what you’re experiencing and I’ve felt that way before. That’s a much less eloquent paraphrasing, but largely the same. She ended by saying “Have courage, and do it beautifully.”

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And lastly, Agent Michelle Witte (The Craptastic Guide to Pseudo-Swearinghad a fabulous class on Voice that I just loved. She showed some wonderful examples from books such as I Capture the Castle and The Unfinished Angel, and made me feel like I did a decent job describing Voice in my own Blue Bicycle ExperimentMy favorite thing that Witte said was “Be quietly distinct. You don’t have to shout. You don’t have to go overboard.” Life is in the details, after all. The trick is knowing that everyone sees those details a little differently than everyone else. Witte was good enough to fangirl about books with me a little bit after the lesson, too. Which was fun. :)

And that was my best take-away advice from Storymakers 13! It was a fantastic weekend, and I came home with a lot to think about. Hope this gave you a little sliver of that as well!

Writing in a Winter Wonderland and New at the Writer’s Dojo

winterwonderland

As with some of you, my world is still covered in snow. I have to admit, as a San Diego native, this is the most serious winter that I’ve ever seen. The two other winters I’ve spent in the Rocky Mountains were definitely mild by comparison. Have you seen the videos of people sliding due to frozen rain a few days ago? I had to deal with that. Maybe not so much as in the video, but enough that

Meanwhile, I am drafting again. I need a little bit of space from my fantasy manuscript so that I can process better what kind of changes need to be made (I know there are a lot of them! Fantasy is tough, guys!) So I’m retreating to my more comfortable realm of modern day paranormal whilst nursing the damaged ego all writers are used to when they see that the lovely thing they just finished is full of flaws.

So for the moment I’m cozying up to my Paranormal (which isn’t hard… I love it!) and trying to stay warm. In the meanwhile, I have some great news…

In case you haven’t heard, (because I haven’t told you… sorry for that…) there is some exciting news going on at the Writer’s Dojo! Here’s a look at it:

Treat every month like NaNoWriMo!

Beginning February 1st, 2013, the writer’s dojo returns to its roots and ushers in a new age of ninjawesomeness. Each month we will open three training rooms at the writer’s dojo website. A room for drafters (Writing Month, aka WriMo), a room for revisers (Revising Month, aka ReMo) and a room for those querying (Querying Month, aka QuMo).

We invite you to set your own goals, whether it’s to write a thousand words a day, revise ten pages a week, or submit twenty queries in a month, and register your goal in the appropriate training room.

There is also now a Google + group for the Dojo, so don’t be shy, join up! This is a great way to connect with others and to keep yourself motivated.

My first goal for February 2013 is to finish drafting my paranormal YA, OR to have written at least 10,000 words on it by the end of the month. I like to give myself two options so I feel like I’m achieving something no matter which I’ve hit. Does that make me a cheater? Oh well, you don’t have to play that way! :-P

The F Words. Fear. Of. Finishing.

I worry sometimes that I am afflicted with the F words. Not that one you’re thinking of. These: Fear of Finishing.

This is a first-timer’s fear, I know. Because this first time is, while maybe not the hardest (how would I know?), HARD. Because I’ve spent my whole life, just about, thinking about getting published and how I probably have the stuff to make it if I work at it.

As writers, though, even when we have a story that we love and something that we would like to share with the world, sometimes the prospect of telling a story right is (or SEEMS) inhibiting. What if we get it wrong?

The fact of the matter is, when it comes to writing an original story, we’re the only ones who have any chance of getting it RIGHT.

This seems kind of silly to say, but it’s true. It’s YOUR story. YOU have to write it. Or it won’t get written. Simple as that.

This is the thought that has been pushing me along lately. This is my book. I want it out in the world. I want ME out in the world as an author, instead of shut up in my comparatively small corner of the internet talking  to the spare passerby reader who likes to look up “Posts on Writing” on WordPress. (Though I really appreciate you readers!)

So when it comes to the Fear Of Finishing… kick it. Out. Don’t even let it sink in. This is something I’ve struggled with, sure, and probably most writers have at some point. But the professionals get it done, no matter what. And that’s my goal in this plan over all, isn’t it? To become a professional? You bet your petutti it is. How do you spell petutti anyhow?

P.S. See that photo up there? That was scribbled and taken in haste by yours truly.  Following the recent blogger-gets-sued train of thought… that we probably should have all been doing in the first place… over the next few weeks I’m going to attempt to swap photos I’ve used with less-than-clear permission and find some Creative Commons License stuff or take my own pics. It’s about time, Lisa. It’s about time, blogosphere.

Booking Through Thursday: One or Many?

Vampira2468 asks:

Series or Stand-alone?

I know this question is about reading books, whether you prefer reading a series or a stand-alone novel, but since I’ve answered that before (somewhere… don’t quote me) with a resounding “Well… both….” I’m going to instead look at this today from a writer’s point of view.

Forgive me if my answer stays more or less the same. Do I prefer writing a stand-alone novel or a series? Well… both.

If you look at my “Works” page, you can see that my two main WIPs at the moment (though really, I’m letting the one wait in line as I finish the other) are a stand-alone (Daughter) and what I at least hope might have the meat to pull off a series someday (Jethro). Both of them are very different writing experiences. One is an epic-fantasy-adventure that’s somewhere between The Princess Bride and Anastasia (figure that one out) and the other is about a bunch of high school kids in a small town who have to face the fact that they all have unexplained powers. One is focused very closely around one main character and a few of her closest connections, while the other technically has a main character, but also has an ensemble cast list as long as my arm.

I cannot tell you which one is more fun to write.

I really can’t. And I’m not going to make any comments about it being like picking between two children (though really, it is) but what I will say is that both stories have their own challenges and benefits, and I love that. So let’s talk about those challenges and benefits… let’s call them bonuses, though, because that’s what they really feel like.

Writing a Stand-Alone Novel (One or Two Main Characters)

 Challenges:

  • Typically you only have one (or two) perspectives to work with, even if you’re working in third-person. Unless of course you’re working in third-person omniscient, but that’s not often the case. This can make it hard to show the audience something without letting your character see it, which is sometimes vital.
  • Your character also has to be strong enough to carry a full-length novel. There’s really no half-ways-ing on this. Either you have someone who feels like a real person and is exciting or relatable, or you don’t have anything. Really. Because if your character doesn’t hold up, nothing else will. There’s no room for it to.
  • This is your one shot. Everything you want to say in this story, has to be said in this book. It’s a little bit different with the internet now, because we have the opportunity to do ebook tie-ins and things like that, but it doesn’t change the fact that if there was something you wanted to happen in this story and it didn’t make it there, it will never be there. The end.

Benefits:

  • The story has a clear-cut ending. This may not be the case with a series, at least with an ensemble cast like I’m planning. The story could well go on forever in an ensemble piece, but with one character, it’s easier to see where to say goodbye. (Clarification: this does not make it easier to actually SAY goodbye!)
  • You get to really fall in love with your characters. Not saying you can’t do this in a bigger cast (and obviously you can if your series is all based around one character, but that doesn’t seem to be the way I work), but fictional characters are often enigmatic and untrusting, and it takes time to peel away their layers. You get to do this if most of your time is spent with only one or two of them.

Writing a Series (Ensemble Cast)

Challenges:

  • Think making one character strong enough to carry a book was difficult? Now you have to have half a dozen (or more!) characters and they each have to be different enough to feel like different people. No use having a lot of characters if no one can tell them apart.
  • You also have to be very, very careful that your characters don’t fall into archetypes. Or if they do, that they have something about them that really makes the archetype worth it. Make sure there’s a twist. If the character just really needs to be an archetype, make sure that they feel organic. Avoid clichés as best as you can.
  • You have to make sure that your ending lets everything be said. Again, this is a little different now that we can offer side novellas and what not, but if you have half a dozen important characters, you have to make sure they each get their due and that their storyline ends by the time you say “The End.” This may not be an easy thing to balance out.

Benefits:

  • So. Many. Voices. Really that’s what’s fun about an ensemble cast and the time a series will give you to feature them. You get to experiment with so many different characters and write in their distinct voices. You don’t get “stuck” with one or two characters.
  • Time. Really a big benefit of a series is that you have room and time to get to a lot of things. In my case, a lot of different characters with personal storylines that play into the bigger story arch. You can even end a book halfway through one character’s personal struggle… it will bring some back to read the next book, to see how it turned out.

So… sorry to turn a reading question into a lecture about writing… but really, I’m not. I wonder if anybody else can think of benefits and challenges to the two?

Tuesday Talk: The Art of the Possible

- G.K. Chesterton

My title comes from a song in Evita, which calls “politics” the art of the possible. I think writing is really the art of the possible, though. Even if we like to slip into impossible once in a while. Because really, we deal in possibility. If _______ happens, what could possibly be the result?

What would it be like if an elven-year-old boy got a letter saying he was really a wizard? If a teenage girl saw her younger sister picked to fight to the death? If a boy turned into a wolf when the weather got cold?

Maybe these things aren’t likely to happen—but that’s not the point. The point is, in order for fiction to work, the reaction has to be real. The consequences have to ring true. Every character, every place, every society has to have an echo of truth to it, or it will not read as true. It will not hit home for the reader with the force that it’s supposed to. Science fiction has to be based on science. Fiction has to be based on fact.

Now, I’m not saying that all books have to be autobiographical, of course, but that people can tell the difference between something a writer understands, and something they’re just hoping will sound good. Someone who’s experienced pain and loss can tell if your character is really feeling pain and loss, or if you’re just hoping they’ll take your word for it. Someone who’s fallen head-over-heels in love will know if the connection between your main characters is there, or if you’re only hoping that it is.

There’s a reason why people say write what you know, and a reason why they say that writing is like opening a vein—people want stories that feel lived, because each of your readers have lived, and they want to feel like your book is another life they can slip into. Whether that new life is something familiar to them or something they can only dream about doesn’t really matter. It just has to feel possible.

Does your book offer that?

Here’s to You, Judy Blume.

What book made you realize you were doomed to be a writer? 

The book that did me in was Just as Long as We’re Together, by Judy Blume. Yes, I’m a Blume-r. I started a deep love of reading before I really could read—somewhere there is a VHS of me reciting the picture book Who’s a Pest? from memory when I was four years old, before I knew more than how to spell my name. I raced through book after book after book, reading anything and everything I could get my hands on. Fiction, nonfiction, mystery, fantasy, it all had me enthralled. I gobbled up classics like The Secret Garden and Little Women and The Hobbit.

And then, when I was eleven years old, a friend made me read Just as Long as We’re Together. I’d read Judy Blume before, though I didn’t realize that what I was holding now was the same author as the Fudge books—which I loved for a totally different reason—but when I read Just as Long as We’re Together, I knew I’d found the thing I really and truly loved. Teen fiction. Young Adult fiction.

I was too young to even be considered a Young Adult, but Blume’s stories struck such a deep chord with me—maybe because I was on shaky footing with the friends I thought would last forever, maybe because I was an “early bloomer” puberty-wise and Blume dealt with those sensitive subjects so deftly. I couldn’t get attached to the Babysitters’ Club or Sweet Valley High books that friends were reading and loving so much. They seemed so paltry—Blume’s characters seemed real. Three-dimensional people with souls and pasts and lives of their own.

And I wanted to be able to create that. I wanted to write books that people could walk away from feeling like they had new friends, new loves, new people dear to their hearts. Stephanie Hirsh and Rachel Robinson (with her own book as a sequel) are still a part of me today. Insecure teenagers fighting to define themselves and their beliefs and motivations—that feeling, that fight, is what made me want to be a writer. What made me want to examine the struggles of the heart and the complications of loving people but needing to be true to yourself, no matter what.

I drank those books down, every Blume I could get. Deenie. Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret. Then Again Maybe I Won’t. It’s Not the End of the World. And then I haunted the YA shelves in my local bookstores—you know, back when it really was just a couple of shelves, usually hidden in the kids’ section?—looking every single time for something more. I was starving for young adult books. And there were a few out there… but mostly I was running across things like Lurlene McDaniels‘ books—where somebody always dies and everybody else is left tortured and ruined for it—and that kind of melodrama was not what I was looking for.

I just wanted good characters. Great characters. Characters that I wanted to stay up late at night on the phone with. That’s what I found in Blume’s books, and it took me a long time to find characters as great in YA again—though it’s certainly not hard now. And maybe it’s not because there were other kids out there like me… who heard that voice in the vast wilderness of literature and finally recognized something that was their own.

My writing has taken a different turn than the contemporary Young Adult that I started making stories up for when I was ten or twelve, but the heart behind the writing has been the same—has strengthened, really. I’m trying my best to capture the kind of power that goes behind emotions when you’re a teenager, and I love the way that fantasy highlights that, and I enjoy putting (hopefully) believable people into impossible situations and see how they deal with them. What’s most important to me is the honesty of the emotion.

So here’s to you, Judy Blume. Thanks for giving me my spark. I’m sure I’m not the only one.

2K a day?

Let me start out by saying I’ve never finished NaNoWriMo. I’ve attempted it a good four or five times, too. I’ve never successfully gone a whole week making the daily word count—which in case you’re wondering, is 1667 words per day.

Recently, though, I’ve decided that my biggest goal for writing right now is to get through a first draft, remembering that it’s the second and third drafts that’ll make things pretty and nice. I mentioned this to my husband and said that the thing I had to do was set a word goal per day and stick to it. He asked me how many words I would write per day.

“Um… I don’t know.”

This was not the right answer to give him.

“I was thinking probably a thousand.”

He then challenged me to write two thousand words per day. I tried to explain to him that this would be impossible, and possibly make me cry.

But he asked me to try it… just try it.  I was unsure to say the least, but I agreed.

How is it going so far? Well I’m really only a couple of days into the challenge. Two thousand words, every Monday through Friday, at least until my first draft is done. I started last Wednesday. My first day it took me almost twelve hours, but I hit my goal. The next day I started a little earlier, but it still took me just about all day. Still, I had a very good idea of where my story was going—including a checklist of scenes I needed to write.

Friday I went on a quilt run with my mom. (Well, we dragged the husband along—you know, for extra goodies). A whole day of writing was gone. Saturday was part of the quilt run too. (If you don’t know what a quilt run is, google it. Then imagine it full of crazy old ladies.)

So… now I was 2000 words behind. I was worried this would throw off my momentum, and it’d be a challenge to get started again on Monday—today. Well, it was a challenge to get started today, but not really because I couldn’t find momentum—I just couldn’t find a chance to sit down at first.

I’m happy to say that when I did get to the sitting down, with some persistence I got even more written in a shorter time than I had the other two days—I wrote 3024 words today, and broke 48K in my WIP. This isn’t the most I’ve written of an original piece of fiction, but it is by far the most consecutive writing of an original piece I’ve done. I have one at 56K, but it’s all scattered in scenes, with big gaping holes in between. With the WIP I’m working on now, 95% of it was written consecutively.

Basically, I’m feeling good today. I even made up a good amount of the 2000 words I missed on Friday, so that I’m only a little over 600 words behind now, and now 600 words seems like a piece of cake. Even 2000 words doesn’t seem like a whole lot. After all, I can write 500 words in an hour, if I’m in the right zone. 2000 only takes four of those. That’s totally doable.

Well, right now, when I don’t have a job. I’m sure that has something to do with it. But at the same time, that’s exactly why I need to keep the fire burning.

So whatever your goal is, even if it scares you a little, believe in it. You’re capable. And if you need some support or a cheering section, hit me up. I’m good at that. ;)

K is for Killer Instinct

I’ve been trying to wrap a lot of my blogfest entries around to writing, and it took me a while to think of something that I could write about the letter K, but then it hit me.

You see, I have a secret fear when it comes to my writing… that fear being that I just don’t have the killer instinct required to be great. Villains are hard for me to write, because they involve motives that don’t always make sense to me (in an emotional way, not in a logical way). And then my other characters, my non-villains? Well… I like them. I like them too much, maybe. A part of me worries that I’ll always pull punches—that I’ll never put my toys away and play with the big girls.

This is, I think, Stephenie Meyer’s great fault. One of the Cullen clan ought to have kicked it by the end of the series. I was betting on Rosalie being killed off in Breaking Dawn. It would have packed enough of a punch, and torn Emmett to shreds—a depth of character possibly well beyond him with Meyer as his creator.

Good writers—great writers—don’t pull punches. Great writers make you feel every inch of indecision, or hurt, or loss that the character does, and lets the worst of things happen to their characters. My latest favorite author, Maggie Stiefvater, has torn my heart to pieces on more than one occasion, and by goodness do I love her for it.

I worry, though, if I’m capable of that. If I can really destroy a character I love, for the sake of good fiction. It takes a lot to take or destroy a life, even a fictional one.

I want to be able to do that, though. I’m seeing some hope in my future, as lately in plotting I’ve come across ideas that both horrified and excited me—and I think that must be the way it starts.

J is for Jethro

Jethro, Arizona isn’t on any maps. That’s mainly because it’s plucked straight from my imagination. I was traveling all over the southwest a few summers ago, on business with my dad. Luckily this was made interesting on account of my father knowing the southwest like the back of his hand, and his willingness to travel off the beaten path.

I had a story in my head that, while not exactly just beginning to form (it had been a story before, you see, but it had been demolished and salvaged for scraps when it had gotten out of control and unpublishable), was definitely in the beginning stages in most cases. A lot of my time on this trip was spent writing poetry about desert lizards and musing on this story.

I was looking for a place. I knew it would be in the desert, but it had to be somewhere special, somewhere that was mine. And then I found a place that was almost perfect. We drove through Jerome, Arizona, a small mining town that’s all topsy-turvy and thriving on tourism alone, with intrepid architecture and dangers of mine shafts all round.

I knew that I had found something magically close to where I wanted the setting of my story to be. I regret that I haven’t woven more of its magic into the story yet, as I feel that will be something left up to the rewrites, but it’s all the glory of the modern world in an older western settlement, with the beauties of the hot Arizona desert, a desert I’ve grown to love in my years of traveling across it time and again in my youth. This is a story I love, so it’s fitting for it to have a setting that I love, too.

And I’ve just realized I now have two J entries… le sigh.